Ten Years After Katrina, Scores Up As Questions Remain


This month marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina wreaking devastation and damage on the city of New Orleans, but the education revolution that followed this tragedy is a bright spot in the recovery process, according to a recent analysis.

Tulane University released a report in Education Next magazine calling the changes in the past ten years radical and influential. Although researchers say this recipe might not work for fixing education nationwide, it has worked for the Crescent City, writes Danielle Dreilinger of The Times-Picayune.

Doug Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, wrote that the city “essentially erased its traditional school district and started over.”  Almost all authority was lost by the Orleans Parish School Board and all of its teachers were laid off.  Most of its schools were taken over by the Louisiana Recovery School District and became charter schools that governed themselves. Most of the remaining schools are also charters.

Harris shared the results of the research at a conference in June, saying that New Orleans students’ performance has “shot upward.” The average elementary or middle school student had scores rise 8 to 15 percentage points. Harris said he was not aware of any other districts that had made this kind of improvement in such a short time. In fact, other parishes affected by Katrina, for the most part, had scores that stayed the same as pre-Katrina results.

Since the year of the storm, test scores have largely determined whether a charter school is allowed to stay open. Unfortunately, according to Harris, this policy could result in a “teaching to the test” mentality instead of assessment as a measure of students’ knowledge and thought-processes. In New Orleans, math and English scores became important, but the research team did not find any evidence that test scores varied in respect to how much each test counted.

The reasons Harris gives for why the “New Orleans experience” might not work for districts in other parts of the country include that New Orleans had no other choice but to improve and that the city became a magnet for reformers who wanted to come and help change the system, which gave the district a large number of teachers from whom to choose.

Two other articles by researchers at Tulane were also published on the Education Next website, one of which cited the political hurdles involved in such far-flung change, reports Kevin McGill for the Associated Press. Critics of the changes are upset because the conversion to charter schools has taken control away from the local elected school board. They also question whether the improvements seen are actually due to the post-Katrina changes.

Salon’s Jennifer C. Berkshire writes that the all-charter-school system may not be all it was cracked up to be. First of all, she writes, before Katrina, New Orleans schools were already mired in dysfunction.  There are many who want what they see as the truth to be told.

“The test scores are up, but let’s be honest about what we had to do to get there,” is how scholar Andre Perry put it. “Don’t lie to people and say ‘it’s all good.’”

Perry, who was CEO of Capital One/University of New Orleans charter network, returned to New Orleans after several years at Michigan’s Davenport University. He wants to know why, in a city that is 65% black, the education reform movement is almost entirely led by whites.

An advocate for parents and native of the city, Ashana Bigard, says that New Orleanians have been “iced out.” The question of who should be making the decisions about the shape and future of schools in New Orleans, she notes, might be better answered by those who call the city home. Natives would probably say that academic achievement comes first, but would advocate also for community building, justice, liberation, and the ability of the city’s children to survive and thrive in their own world.

Many of New Orleans’ schools are beginning to look very much alike, says Aesha Rasheed, editor of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide.  They are “a combination of long days, strict discipline, and a heavy concentration on the core, and tested, subjects: English and math.”